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Lofty goal of transparency falls short

Kirk Adams may have set the bar impossibly high.

As part of his bid to become speaker in late 2008, he distributed a well-polished 16-page book that laid out exactly what he would do if elected by his Republican colleagues to lead the House of Representatives.

One of the core planks of his platform was returning the chamber, and the legislative process, to openness and transparency. Of key importance, he told lawmakers – and the public – was to allow more examination of the budget process.

In 2009, Adams’ first year as speaker, the House did not clear that bar. Much of the budget work was done in secret, as top Republicans in the House and Senate crafted most of the spending plan behind closed doors.

Tim Schmaltz, coordinator of the Protecting Arizona’s Family Coalition, which advocates for increased spending on social services, said, “Last year, ‘open and transparent’ was a figment of people’s imagination. There was very little (that was) ‘open and transparent,’
particularly with the public.”

Budget bills weren’t made public until hours before lawmakers voted on them, hearings were called with short notice, and debate was curtailed on the budget package and changes to it.
Adams said the House has become more open, although not all of the goals have been met.
“I did set the bar very high. I think that’s the role of leadership.

If you aim low, you’re going to hit low,” he said. “We’ve aimed very high, and we haven’t hit the mark in every respect. But I think we’ve made considerable progress.”

For example, he said, lawmakers released a 450-page book in January 2009 that listed every option budget analysts had put forward to close the state’s deficit. And the budget bills approved in early June were based directly on the work of the Appropriations committees.

Some longtime Capitol veterans said the budget process has been disguised gradually, and fewer spending decisions are made in the Appropriations committees.

“We used to get the committee together, and it would write the budget, then sell it to the rest of us,” said Rep. Jack Brown, a Democrat from St. Johns who has more than 35 years of legislative experience. “Now, leadership decides what’s going to be in the budget and then runs it through the committee as a formality, knowing they have the votes and it won’t be changed.”

Longtime lobbyist Kevin DeMenna said the old process, which began changing in the 1990s, relied heavily on Appropriations subcommittees, which would scrutinize state agency spending and debate the budget plans proposed by the Governor’s Office and the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

The subcommittees would make their recommendations to the full committee, which would use those recommendations to create the bulk of the budget. Major budget issues were left to leadership to hash out with the governor and the caucus.

“Now, the entire budget is done behind closed doors,” DeMenna said. “I can’t remember the last time I spoke before a budget hearing with even the prospect of making a change.”

But not everyone with a lengthy Capitol pedigree thinks “the good old days” were better than today’s process. In fact, things are more honest now, said Stan Barnes, a former state lawmaker who served in the House and the Senate.

Barnes, who is now a lobbyist and political consultant, said he was on the House Appropriations Committee during his first term in 1989 and 1990. In his first session, the committee worked diligently to put its budget proposal together, only to have leadership decide “at the last minute that it could be torn up, because it didn’t have the votes,” he said.

Now, it’s well known that the main purpose of the Appropriations committees is to gather information from agencies and approve the budget bills, but not actually create them.

“The process you see today grew out of the old days,” Barnes said. “It is better today because it’s less of a charade.”

Many House Republicans said there’s no need for widespread changes to the process. They said it’s easy to access budget information from leadership.

And the public, too, has access to budget information on the Legislature’s Web site and through the media, said House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanagh.

“Anybody who’s interested in the process has plenty of information,” the Fountain Hills Republican said. “But the process by itself can’t be totally transparent, because this is not a theatrical presentation. It’s a political process.”

Barnes said compromises are more easily struck behind closed doors.

“Compromises are best struck in private,” he said. “Then the votes are cast in public.”
Adams said the criticism directed at him was unfair, mostly partisan attacks from Democrats. He said Democrats who complained early in the session about the lack of transparency had no complaints about negotiating a budget deal with Republicans behind closed doors in July.

“Anything that we did last year that the Democrats didn’t like, they waved the banner of transparency,” he said. “They used it as a weapon.”

DeMenna said Adams’ proclamation that he wants more transparency is a signal that the pendulum may be swinging away from the secretive style that’s prevailed in recent years.

“There’s a good way to do budgets and a bad way. I think he’s figured out which is preferable and is re-energizing the process accordingly,” he said. “It has taken us 15 years to get where we are. I think it’s fair to grant a few years for the reforms to be really noticeable.”

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